Journey into America
The Challenge of Islam
By Akbar Ahmed
Brookings Institution Press
Copyright © 2010 Akbar Ahmed
All right reserved.
Chapter One Muslim Odyssey
I had walked into an ambush. An aggressive sniper was positioned directly in front of me, with two equally effective sharp-shooters to my left and the obvious leader of the group facing me from the back row. Having been in charge of some of the most battle-hardened tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I knew something about war tactics. One lesson I had learned was to keep cool under fire.
Showdown in a Mosque
Where does one begin a search for American identity and its Muslim component? The answer seemed obvious: in the nation's heartland. But what could be learned about America's founding principles of freedom of speech and religious tolerance in a nondescript, almost shabby mosque in Omaha, Nebraska, where I now was? Especially in the midst of a verbal ambush by an African American man wearing a typical Arab red-and-white checkered headdress, or kufiya, who looked as if he had come straight out of an orthodox mosque in Saudi Arabia.
Hearing my call for interfaith dialogue with Jews and Christians, the man stood up in a startling breach of mosque-not to mention Muslim-etiquette to challenge my interpretation of Islam. "Good Muslims" could not talk to nonbelievers, he almost shouted. The salvos continued, despite my well-founded explanation: Muhammad, the holy Prophet of Islam, had himself paved the way for such dialogue. He had urged Muslims persecuted in Mecca to migrate to Abyssinia, a Christian country, because he anticipated they would be well received there once the natives of that land had met them and learned about Islam. But, the man in Arab headdress snapped back, the Prophet had really intended those Muslims to convert the Abyssinians by force.
To me, that seemed an unlikely scenario. This was a small group of destitute refugees, I explained, about a dozen men including their wives, seeking refuge in a large country. And why would the Prophet have sent his own daughter, Rokaya, to join such a group, essentially a war party in this man's interpretation? And why, on the death of Abyssinia's king, did the Prophet lead the funeral services if not out of respect? My remarks fell on deaf ears. By now highly agitated, the man turned his back on me and strode out of the room, only to return within minutes to undertake his prostrations in prayer even while I was still talking. On rising, he approached a bookshelf on my left and noisily browsed among the volumes, keeping his back to me.
I ignored him and continued talking to the congregants seated in front of me. They were a microcosm of Muslim society in America-African American Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, with one or two white converts. Their conversation also faithfully reflected the range of Muslim thinking in America: some wished to live in contemporary times, and some would have nothing to do with modernity.
My host, a Pakistani lawyer from Karachi and acting president of the Islamic center running the mosque, did not remain with me at the pulpit once the harsh words began to fly. He had felt intimidated by those eager to challenge me and had quietly left. He had invited me with my team of research assistants to participate in the iftaar, the opening of the fast, in September 2008, as it was the month of Ramadan, but did not feel compelled to defend his guests. Meanwhile, the challengers, now numbering four, pressed on, disputing my claim that ilm, or knowledge-a central feature of God's message in the Quran-encompasses all knowledge, even if it comes from Western sources. For them, the only knowledge relevant to a Muslim arises from shariah, or Islamic law-never mind that in his famous sayings, or hadith, the Prophet had exhorted Muslims to acquire knowledge even if it meant going to China, which for a Muslim in the seventh century was a distant and forbidding non-Muslim land. It did not take long to grasp the "defensive" subtext of the debaters' argument: Islam must be defended at all costs, even to the point of martyrdom.
I replied with one of my favorite hadiths: "The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr." The truth of this hadith, I added, was abundantly apparent throughout the Muslim world, which during all my travels there exhibited a primarily open-minded and compassionate Islam, even under trying circumstances.
The older, more portly challenger in the back row, wearing a colorful shawl and a black velvet cap, shot back accusingly: "How could you take two white kids with you to the Muslim world and hope to explain Islam?" He was referring to my former students Frankie Martin and Hailey Woldt, who were present and had helped me gather data for Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. But he had overlooked my main research assistant for that project-a Muslim. Particularly unsettling was his reference to the color of my students' skin. Islam prides itself on being emphatically colorblind in this regard.
The rebuke I had received was rooted in antipathy not only to other religions and the idea of knowledge as I saw it, but also to other races. On this and subsequent stops on my new journey, this time through America, I found that color continues to be a defining factor for Americans, affecting status and authority and echoing tensions of past eras. It was clearly a subject that needed to be explored further as we continued our fieldwork on a project that would take us across the length and breadth of the United States studying Muslims in the context of American society.
To my team's chagrin, our interviews had begun on shaky ground. We were being met with suspicion, paranoia, and fear fostered by the news media, particularly by reports of infiltrators-of secret agents pretending to be Muslim converts. When Frankie, always sensitive to mosque culture, tried to politely distribute our questionnaires to the men in Omaha's mosque, one congregant balked: "Believe me, you don't want to hear what I have to say." Hearing everyone's views was essential to our investigation, replied Frankie, but he quickly backed off upon receiving a "chilling look" that made his hair "stand on end." Some of the men gruffly asked whether we were working for the FBI. Their rudeness and open hostility surprised both Frankie and Hailey, who had not experienced "anything like this in the Muslim world," a remark they would utter several times on our new journey.
Celestine Johnson, another former American University student accompanying us in Omaha, was crestfallen. Her excitement at the prospect of visiting a mosque for the first time was squashed when she tried to take some pictures of us with the congregants. They angrily waved her back behind a sheet erected to segregate the women from the men. For Celestine, a young, white, middle-class American girl, the experience unleashed a fear lurking in the minds of many white Americans-a fear of Islam and aggressive non-white males. Some would call this America's nightmare.
The next day the team interviewed people about Omaha's Islamic center and community. The four who had challenged me, they learned, had posted a fatwa (pronouncement) in the mosque before 9/11 calling for the killing of Jews and Christians and praising the deeds of Osama bin Laden. All four were converts to what is known as Salafi Islam in the United States, a fundamentalist version of the faith influenced by Saudi Arabia (see chapter 5). It purports to be an unadulterated and "pure" form of Islam that is incompatible with any modern Western ideas. The Salafis believe Islam is under attack throughout the world and consider themselves champions of the faith. While most lead peaceful, isolated, and austere lives, some are prepared to take aggressive action in standing up for their beliefs. According to many informants in Omaha and elsewhere, Salafi Islam attracts the young by inspiring them with a sense of identity and of pride. It was estimated that roughly 50 percent of the Muslims in Omaha were Salafi or those inclined toward a more fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, a figure that cropped up again and again on our journey.
Salafi teachings are a far cry from those of Muslims such as Imam W. D. Mohammed, who has had a monumental impact on Islam in America, especially among African Americans (see chapter 4). He advocated acceptance of others and interfaith dialogue.
Just before our visit, the Salafi members of this congregation had sent waves of fear through Omaha's Muslim community when they brutally attacked some of their Muslim opponents in the parking lot of the mosque. Understandably, many congregants were vague about the incident but did hint that the Saudi government was filtering money into such groups through umbrella and student organizations.
Resurfacing after the talk, my host, the Pakistani lawyer, drew me aside to commend me for standing up to this group. Others, men and women alike, also came up to me and in hushed tones voiced their approval of my words. They could do little else in the face of the aggressive measures being taken to impose Salafi views on their congregation. Such a group can have an enormous impact on a small mosque. In this instance, its Salafi members had successfully blocked the appointment of any imam who was not of their thinking, leaving the Islamic center without an imam for six months. According to the community's mainstream Muslims, the previous imam had been fired because the Salafis claimed that he was not conservative enough.
Two days later, I delivered a public lecture on Islam at Omaha's Creighton University, and who should be sitting in the audience but the African American who had heckled me in the mosque from the back row, again strikingly attired. This time, however, he kept his peace, even when I again called on Muslims to participate in interfaith activity. Here, information gleaned during Frankie's conversation with the man's wife cast a different light on this individual. Apparently the state had removed their grandchildren from their home at the behest of government lawyers arguing they were a bad influence on the children because they were Muslims. The experience had left the family angry, distressed, and defensive.
Yet another scene presented itself three days later at an interfaith breakfast hosted by the inspiring figure of Rabbi Aryeh Azriel at Temple Israel. About sixty of the leading Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders of Omaha were present, including the Pakistani lawyer from the Islamic center. More vocal in this forum, he spoke of the Muslim community's struggles to become established. As first-generation Americans, they needed time, he explained plaintively, sounding a little lost and unsure.
Some Jewish leaders were not buying this argument, even in the temple's welcoming atmosphere, preferring to think that the Quran teaches violence and that Muslims have failed to integrate into mainstream U.S. culture. One said Americans "mistrusted their Muslim neighbors" for not speaking out against Muslim terrorists: "If I knew a Jew who would want to harm America, I would report him. I wonder if a Muslim would do so. Most Americans believe that Muslims are out to do us harm as Jews and Americans."
By contrast, Rabbi Azriel, a Sephardic Jew, understands and even sympathizes with Muslim culture. As the leader of the Tri-Faith Initiative, a project to create a temple, church, and mosque on the same site, he is dedicated to promoting true interfaith understanding. Despite his energetic efforts, some members of his congregation remain opposed to the project, and like many Americans they consider the Muslim community an impenetrable and alien entity.
These and other encounters at the outset of our own project laid bare the social patterns, problems, and dilemmas of Muslims living in America today. I also realized that the three models of Muslim society I developed following my previous travels to the Muslim world-the mystics who believe in universal humanism, the modernists who attempt to balance modernity and religion, and the literalists who adhere strictly to tradition-were not easily applicable to the American Muslim community, and new ways of studying it were needed. Take the Omaha group. For one thing, this tiny midwestern mosque has had to deal with external problems common throughout the country: non-Muslim neighbors objecting to plans for expansion and overflow parking on the street or young white men intimidating Muslim women. Within the mosque itself, the community's narratives of American identity differed widely, with some overlapping and others in conflict. An intense ideological struggle was under way in the mosque concerning the nature of Islam and the directions it would take in the United States. To complicate matters, the mosque's leadership was in crisis, and scholarship was being marginalized. In addition, ethnic differences were creating conflict between the major Muslim groups in America-African Americans and immigrants. Islamic adab, or traditional etiquette, was disappearing. These heartland Muslims needed to reach out to other faiths to become better integrated into American society yet were uneasy about doing so. As we soon came to recognize, all of these factors were among the multiple strands of culture and history that have shaped American Muslim identity.
The Challenge of Islam
Muslims are for Americans what the Russians were for Churchill: "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Yet it is urgent for America to comprehend Islam, not only for the sake of its ideals (which include religious tolerance) but also for its geopolitical needs and strategy. American troops are in several Muslim nations, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia; five of the nine states that analysts consider "pivotal" for American foreign policy are Muslim; 6 million to 7 million Muslims live in the United States (our field estimates weigh in on the higher side); with about 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, one out of every four people on the planet is a Muslim. Furthermore, Muslims are beginning to make an impact on all levels of American society-even as members of Congress. Another reason to learn about Islam is the long list of its followers who want to harm the United States-from Osama bin Laden to the new phenomenon of the "homegrown terrorists" (see chapter 9).
America's attempts to grapple with Islam reflect some rather misguided views of the faith's tenets and its followers. These have led some, including so-called experts, to ridicule Islam's holy book, mock its Prophet, and reject its teachings. Some also believe that the teachings in Muslim holy texts promote violence and terrorism, that these ideas exceed the boundaries of religious tolerance, and that Christianity and Islam are on a collision course. Needless to say, American Muslim identity has been greatly affected by the aggressive hyperpatriotism following 9/11, which pointed to Islam as the antithesis of all that was good and worthy in America and led many to ask whether Muslims could be good Americans.
Media and even government figures compounded the hostility: TV commentator Bill O'Reilly has compared the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado has advocated the nuking of Mecca. Comedians, whose traditional role has been to make fun of everyone regardless of race or religion in order to underline their common humanity, now also single out Muslims. In a 2006 Comedy Central special, Carlos Mencia: No Strings Attached, for example, the Mexican American comedian demonstrates his American patriotism by attacking Muslims more crudely and viciously than anyone else. Demeaning portrayals are also common in films like Witless Protection (2008), in which Larry the Cable Guy insults a Muslim motel keeper in a pointless sequence, or Observe and Report (2009), in which a "Mideast-looking" character called "Saddamn" functions as a punching bag for the main character.
These and other treatments suggesting Muslims are crude, inherently violent, and not to be trusted have now pervaded society, painting them as un-American. In the wake of growing American suspicion, fueled by terms bandied about in the media such as "jihad," "fatwa," "female circumcision," and "honor killings," the gap between mainstream Americans and the U.S. Muslim community has grown ever wider since 9/11.
Excerpted from Journey into America by Akbar Ahmed Copyright © 2010 by Akbar Ahmed. Excerpted by permission.
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