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Seven Muslim lives

American Islam The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion Paul M. Barrett Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 304 pp., $25

February 18, 2007|Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah | Marjorie Gellhorn Sa'adah is a writer in Los Angeles.

IN the United States, Muslims are as diverse as they are anywhere around the world. What these 3 million to 6 million people share, in their 1,300 mosques, are the five pillars of Islam: faith in one God, prayer, charity, fasting at Ramadan and, for those who are able to make the journey, pilgrimage to Mecca. With "American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion," Paul M. Barrett portrays seven Muslims in this country, exploring the question of what, for Muslims, represents an American life.

Muslims in America are both native-born and immigrant, with the largest number of South Asian heritage -- Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan -- rather than, as generally assumed, Arab. (The majority of Arabs in the U.S. are Christian.) They are Sunni and Shiite in the same 85/15 proportion as in the rest of the world. They range from the secular to the devout, the insular to the ecumenical. After Sept. 11, Barrett began interviewing Muslims across the United States for a series in the Wall Street Journal, where he was a reporter and an editor for 18 years before leaving for BusinessWeek in 2005.

"Just being there is often the best way to get your arms around someone's story," Barrett writes, and so he experienced the full range of Islam in America, observing family time, prayer, work, study and the practice of faith. Each of the book's main chapters focuses on an individual: an Arab American newspaper publisher, a scholar of Islamic law, the African American imam of a Brooklyn mosque, a feminist writer, an electrician who follows Sufi mysticism, a graduate student of computer science and a fundamentalist activist.

These portraits are peopled with family members and inquisitive children, as well as colleagues and detractors who have their say. Neighbors and friends agree and disagree, while scholars and sheiks, and the wives of scholars and sheiks, correct and comment. Aromatic platters of food appear, and we always see who cooked them. Love stories, conversions and dreams are recounted. Childhoods are remembered, as are migrations through peace, war and imprisonment -- in the U.S. and abroad.

An essential fulcrum is Sept. 11, which many Americans seem to want Muslims both to claim and disavow. Throughout the book, Barrett's subjects deplore the attacks of Sept. 11 as decidedly non-Muslim acts. Still, this is the context of "American Islam," at least for people who have family in and allegiances to places under violence: Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even the farmlands of Yuba City, Calif., where a new mosque was burned in an act of arson in 1994. The United States going to war against a Muslim country. Congress passing the Patriot Act. More than 80,000 Arabs and Muslims required to register with the Justice Department. It is not, Barrett notes, an easy time to be Muslim in America.

The U.S. government and American society both have parts to play in making this a nation where a nonviolent, tolerant Islam can thrive. Barrett devotes a final chapter to this. But the bulk of his book examines possibilities for moderate Islam to coexist with both America and with international Islam.

For Barrett, fundamentalism is the greatest threat to the growth of moderate Islam in the United States. Yet rather than see the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as isolated, he considers it part of a worldwide surge toward extreme conservatism that began to develop within Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the 1970s. This, Barrett notes, was an era when Christian fundamentalism mushroomed in the United States, while in Israel "the Likud Party rose to power ... asserting a biblical mandate to include the West Bank in the Jewish state."

Two manifestations of Islamic fundamentalism -- modern revivalism that "sought to fend off Western influence and respond to the malaise of the Muslim world by re-creating an idealized Islamic society" and Wahhabism, "the intolerant literalism emanating from Saudi Arabia" -- gained credibility across the Middle East and South Asia.

Barrett describes a sheik who was aghast when he immigrated to the U.S. only to find in American mosques "a combatant school of thought, a school of thought that does not accept anyone else except themselves." He considered returning to the Middle East. "Why I have to put myself in that kind of problem? ... I don't want. I will leave."

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