Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, by Akbar Ahmed, Washington, DC: Brookings, 2010, 528pp.
Muslims are for Americans what the Russians were for Churchill: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Cultural anthropologist and Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, Akbar Ahmed’s intention in this book is to crack open the riddle. Towards this end Ahmed and his team of five young researchers traveled for a year through more than 75 cities across the U.S. and visited homes, schools, and over 100 mosques to discover what Muslims are thinking and how they are living in America.
In this work of 9 chapters divided into three parts, Ahmed provides a perspective in the first chapter as to why the riddle exists in the first place. One of the contributing factors is color. Racially, America has been a white country for most of its history. When somebody passes for white, it’s not really an issue. When somebody is visibly different, then Americans have historically not known what to make of that person. They are “out of category”. It is not so much that Muslims in America are out of category, but that they were never clearly in a category, and now, people aren’t sure which category to put them into.
This is a book about how people of different religions, cultures, and skin colors can live together at a time when their communities have become more intermingled than ever before in history. Central to its message is that scant information and knowledge are to blame for the stereotypes and prejudices that Muslim and non-Muslim Americans have of each other.
One of every 4 people on the planet is a Muslim. The American Muslim community is not a monolith but is roughly divided about one-third each between African Americans, Muslims from the Middle East, and those from South Asia. There is also a growing number of white and Latino converts. Each of these groups is markedly different in historical background, lifestyle, attitudes and values.
Part I is devoted to American Identity, and the American reader learns a lot about his/her own country through both a historical and sociological lens. Ahmed distills American identity into three distinct but overlapping identities—primordial, pluralist, and predator. Together they form an organic whole that sheds light on American history and character.
Three American Identities: Primordial, Pluralist, Predator
Primordial: The aim of the early settlers was to survive and create a Christian society. Pluralist: The majority of the founding fathers hoped to create a society in which everyone could live according to his or her faith and under the rule of law. Predator: The most zealous of the settlers argued that the land was given to them by God and they were to occupy it regardless of who was living there. The central dynamic of American society, observes Ahmed, is the tension between these identities.
An example of the analysis with reference to the first identity, primordial. The main torchbearers of the primordial identity were the Scots-Irish, who had been transplanted from Scotland to Ulster in Northern Ireland. In coming to America, they wanted to live as an independent and free people, and generally opted for the frontier, spearheading their way to the Pacific. Nothing would stand in their way, neither man (the Indian), nor animal (the bison), nor nature (railways through mountains). . It wasn’t by accident, observes Ahmed, that the Confederate flag adopted Scotland’s heraldic symbol, St. Andrew’s Cross, as a reminder of the Scottish lineage of many Southerners.
Their way of life rests on devotion to Christianity, on the one hand, and social freedom, on the other. Even today, guns are a symbol of protection and guarantee of independence. Over the years they have developed so strong an American identity that they have erased all previous ethnic lineages in their collective memory. With its “indelible Scots-Irish character”, Texas remained an independent republic until it joined the Union in 1845. And when the Civil War erupted, Texas declared its support for the Confederacy. Along the way, primordial identity would defend itself against Native Americans, blacks, Jews, Italian and Irish Catholics. As recently as 2010, the Texas Board of Education voted to change the state’s school curriculum, dropping Thomas Jefferson from a world history section on great political thinkers and replacing him with other figures, including John Calvin.
World War II was a turning point for America. The war acted as a catalyst for social and political change, eventually giving rise to the civil rights leaders and movements of the 1960s, bringing new energy to the pluralist identity with its universal principles of the right to employment, dignity, and human rights.
Chapter three, “Searching for American Identity”, contains some reflections on “predator identity”. The experience following the attack of 9/11 is cited, in which Muslims in general have been “framed” and are being associated with the acts of terrorism. As a result, peaceful people living here, working hard to support their families, are left feeling isolated in their own community.
Today, Ahmed posits, American primordial identity is flexible in adjusting to Muslims as long as they acknowledge and adhere to their identity, while American pluralist identity, which once welcomed them as a celebration of its own character, now by-and-large has reservations. Predator identity has created problems for Muslims and in doing so has compromised some of America’s founding principles.
Three Different Types of Muslims in America
In Part II, the middle three chapters of the book take a close look at the different Muslim communities within the context of American identity: African American Muslims, immigrant Muslims, and Muslim converts.
In chapter 4, we learn that, as most of the slaves brought to America were from Africa’s west coast where Islam was the predominant religion, by some estimates as many as 50 percent of the slaves were Muslim. Thus, African American Muslims today are more disposed to use the language of “reverting” to Islam rather than “converting”.
Ahmed compares the impact of Imam W.D. Mohammed on Islam among African Americans with that of Martin Luther. W.D. took on the entire establishment of what was normatively seen and accepted as Islam and gave it new direction, away from Black Nationalist Islam and toward identifying with pluralist American identity. The result: Today, millions of African American Muslims are comfortable with being as strongly American as they are being devout Muslims, demonstrating the two are not incompatible.
The challenge for African American Muslims, writes Ahmed, is that immigrant Muslims often behave as if they have a monopoly on understanding Islam, viewing African American Islam as a “secondhand” version. It is the latter, however, he opines, who have a better feel for the workings of American society and who are more at-home in it.
In chapter 5 on “Immigrant Muslims”, the theme is further developed:
While Islam unites African American and immigrant Muslims, each group expresses it differently. For African American Muslims, Islam mans tackling issues of health, education, violence, drugs, and poverty. For immigrants, by and large better educated and more prosperous, Islam is about uniting the global community of Muslims and rallying the world behind the suppressed Muslim minorities in Palestine, Kashmir, and Chechnya (p. 214).
Here Ahmed gives us a window into the complexities of life among Muslims themselves. He does this by expositing three Muslim models finding representation among immigrants: modernist (40-50%), literalist (30-40%), mystic (the remainder). Muslims promoting interfaith activity tend to be at odds with the more orthodox members of their communities who just want to focus on reeducating Muslims or converting Americans to “true Islam”.
It is not uncommon to hear criticism of Muslims for not speaking out against something that Islamist extremists have done. But part of the reason they do not, says Ahmed, is that they are intimidated by other Muslims. The result is that the negative stereotypes that circulate in American society remain more or less unchallenged.
Young people interviewed do not feel close with their historic ethnic roots and don’t understand much about its culture. At the same time they experience a lot of propaganda against Muslims that makes them feel like they’re not really wanted. So they’re left confused, in the middle of “nowhere”. In Ahmed’s view, this ethnography highlights the greatest challenge posed to religious and racial relations in America today.
About 30,000 Americans have converted to Islam, and in chapter 6, “Muslim Converts”, the author explores what is attracting people in spite of the controversy surrounding Islam, and why so many more women are converting than men (4 to 1). The reasons ascribed are varied—notions of modesty, shame, honor—but all the women have one thing in common: reaction to some aspect of American society (sexual promiscuity, materialism, consumerism). And wearing the hijab (head covering) is a “positive”, making them feel special, being treated by men with respect, providing a sign of identity. Ingrid Mattson, the first female head of the Islamic Society of North America, is both a convert and a role model.
Part III is devoted to Adjusting and Adapting. In chapter 7 Ahmed examines whether there is truly a deep divide between Muslims and Jews in America, and in chapter 8 at how well do Muslims get along with other religious groups, such as Mormons.
The Challenge of Islam
In the final chapter, “The Importance of Being America,” the particular meaning of the book’s sub-title —the Challenge of Islam—becomes clear. Ahmed has the highest regard for the vision of the Founding Fathers encapsulated in the founding documents: “That vision is truly universal and therefore attracts the world.” But he is also honest about America’s failures to clearly live that spirit in the world today:
“American society is anchored in democratic principles, yet the U.S. has consistently supported Muslim military dictators; America prides itself on human rights and civil liberties, yet has let itself be tarnished by its treatment of prisoners” (p. 468).
The challenge of Islam, says Ahmed, is to help America re-clarify and rededicate itself to what is deepest and best in its identity. For Muslims to do this, they must work as a coordinated whole:
And just as the different America identities need to coalesce and work together, so must the three Muslim models. The mystics with their universal acceptance, the modernists and their vision of living in the world community of nations, and the literalists with their passion for their faith … (p. 472).
America alone, writes Ahmed, has the capacity to mobilize the world to tackle the daunting tasks before us: poverty, religious wars, environmental issues. “But it cannot do so without resolving the question of its identity. The challenge of Islam is to help America find that identity and enable it to fulfill its destiny.”
Although some of the interviews seem to be too random, on the whole, this is a rich and rewarding read both historically and sociologically, providing insight into the diversity of American Muslims and their potential to help this country realize its vision and promise.
Thomas Ryan, CSP, is director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, DC