Prejudice is a raft onto which the ship-wrecked mind clambers and paddles to safety.
American Muslims is not a scholarly text. It is a persuasive argument, an essay of sorts, explaining the fundamental compatibility of Islamic beliefs with those of Christianity. As I read the book I was reminded of my neighbor’s college-age daughter. Idealistic, enthusiastic, like Hasan, who writes with exclamation points, a look-at-this! style that creates a conversation between the writer and the reader.
Hasan’s book is a beginning. It’s a dialogue, easy to read and compelling. It’s not written to convert the reader to Islam; it serves, instead, as an explanation of the basic tenets of the faith. The main purpose of the book is to break down pervasive stereotypes and generalizations about Islam and discuss the true religious beliefs of Muslims here in the US and all over the world. Hasan is determined to make the reader understand how her faith resembles Christianity—how American Muslims are hardworking good folk who strive to be just and productive citizens—how Muslim teenagers in the US go through the same angst as all teenagers. But she is caught in a cultural battle that seems to go beyond the “normal” American teen confusion. Her religion seems to create an internal struggle between living as an American teenager and the behavior and conformity to Islam that is required at the same time. She seems torn between loyalties here . . . MTV on the one hand, whether or not to wear a hijab (traditional head covering) on the other.
Hasan wrote her book after the Oklahoma City bombing and it has just been re-released. Before the arrest of Timothy McVeigh, the headlines screamed it was the fault of Islamic terrorists. “Misunderstanding of Islam and the spreading of stereotypes about Muslims are as prevalent in US society as the discrimination against overweight people and smokers. American realize these injustices occur on a subconscious level and rarely do anything about them. I don’t think Americans have intentionally declared that they do not want to know more about Islam. I do not think Americans enjoy using stereotypes and generalizations. I think they just haven’t realized yet how much they don’t know about Muslims.”
In America, it can be fairly simple to categorize Christians. We provide names for our various dogmatic structures: Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Pentecostal and many, many more. Muslims can be categorized, too, although I’m not sure that’s really the right term for it. There are different sects, Asma Hasan explains in her book American Muslims. Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Shia, Ismaili—but they all agree on the major tenets of Islam. The distinctions are important, though, because they determine who a Muslim may look to as a leader.
And it’s the leader who makes a difference. Think of it this way: Imagine you have no knowledge, whatsoever, of Christianity. So you look it up on the Internet. The first thing you find is Jerry Falwell’s sadly misplaced condemnation of the American people, saying the WTC attack is the fault of abortionists, gays, and the ACLU. Then you surf on over to the incredible story of the Catholic priest who died while giving last rites to a firefighter at the base of the collapsing World Trade Center. And then, to truly confuse the issue, you find information about Tony Alamo, or David Koresh, or Bob Jones. Pick one and define Christianity by their views only.
Reading Hasan’s book made me realize that that’s what I’ve been doing with Islam. I knew a little bit about one “sect”: the terrorist’s version of Islam. I didn’t take the time to learn about “the rest of them” because I didn’t think it mattered. And now I think it does, if for no other reason than to help me to discriminate between knee-jerk reaction journalism and real reporting.
Large portions of the book seem almost to warn the reader of the influence American Muslims could have on politics. She comments at great length about Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam. She believes that, although he is a major political figure, the “great majority of American Muslims do not feel they are represented by NOI. The NOI agenda of economic separatism for African-Americans and Farrakhan’s racist and anti-Semitic speech seem un-Islamic to many, if not most, American Muslims.”
At times, it’s as if Hasan is saying that we could be all powerful but we can’t unite to do it, so we live here and help other Americans. In the chapter titled “Muslims and American Politics: Creating Unity from the Inside Out,” she states: “The effects of American Muslim diversity are political disunity and an inability to influence political policy despite our size. [7,000,000 in the US] Though American Muslims may already outnumber Jews or will in the next five years, ‘Muslim influence on US foreign policy continues to be only a fraction of that exercised by Jewish Americans’ [Ali Mazrui] Jews, unlike Muslims, have ‘strategically placed’ themselves to influence US policy. In addition, though Muslims are randomly politically active, they respond to policy making from four different identities: their national identity, their racial identity, their religious identity as Muslims, and as American immigrants (or as indigenous Americans.” Statements such as the previous ones make me want to read a response from a comparative religion scholar or a cultural anthropologist, perhaps an American Jewish response.
A recent graduate of New York University School of Law and possessing an undergraduate degree from Wellesley College, Hasan grew up in Pueblo, Colorado. She’s written a book, a primer, the beginning of an explanation. Her description of the Muslim relationship with God helped me understand the difference her beliefs between Jerry Falwell’s religion, the one of condemnation, judgment, and fear. “When a Muslim prays, it is between him or her and God; there are no clergy that must conduct the relationship . . . In Islam, individuals must read the Qur’an themselves and interpret. God will deal with them and their interpretations on Judgment Day. It is not the place of a Muslim to tell another that he or she has sinned against God; Muslims believe only God can make such a pronouncement.” That’s something I am going to think about in the coming months.