Review of Akbar Ahmed's Journey into America:The Challenge of Islam
Friday May 28, 2010
BOOK REVIEW: Muslims in the American frame – by Dr Mahjabeen Islam
Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam
By Akbar Ahmed
Brookings Institution Press; Pp 528; $ 29.95
With the word ‘Muslim’ now
synonymous with terrorism, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam by Akbar Ahmed is a vital read. The cover of the book is in itself heavy with controversial symbolism. Silhouetted against a gorgeous sunrise, the flame of the Statue of Liberty seems to be reaching for the crescent and star.
In what he terms a ‘Muslim Odyssey’, Akbar Ahmed and his team of anthropological researchers travelled across the US over one year to 75 cities and 100 mosques, homes and schools to sample Muslim and non-Muslim sentiment on a variety of issues. The scope of this study is daunting. Over and above, the author wraps it all in a readable format. And though Dr Akbar Ahmed is an academic and the book dense with information, it remains user-friendly to the end.
To understand the pickle that Muslims find themselves in, what with the general sentiment being that Islam has been hijacked by a rogue-fringe, Ahmed lays the foundation with a superb explanation of the development of American identity. Primordial identity is rooted, he says, in the seminal landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth. Puritans like Edward Winslow, who arrived on the Mayflower, and John Winthrop, who came later on the Arbella from England, embodied the primordial identity. The premise of primordial identity was that God had granted the US to Christians, so they could build an ideal community patterned directly on the teachings of the Bible.
Roger Williams is credited with the development of pluralist identity a century before the founding fathers, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin were advocating religious freedom. In the Providence Agreement, Williams stated, “The state should allow all religions, including the Turkish [Islamic] one.”
Predator identity and the concept of zero tolerance developed under Josiah Winslow, the son of Edward Winslow. “Within half a century of the Mayflower’s landing, the native tribes would be decimated in New England. They would be killed by the settlers and their descendants, ravaged by disease or sold into slavery.”
The founding fathers forged the pluralist identity and Ahmed quotes George Washington’s famous words, “The bosom of America was to open to receive the oppressed and persecuted of all nations, whom we shall welcome, to all our rights and privileges; they may be Mahometans, Jews or Christians of any sect or they may be atheists.” Presidents Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt “helped redefine primordial identity by fusing it with predator identity”.
Akbar Ahmed explains how World War II realigned the American identity but also saw the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them US citizens. John F Kennedy inaugurated the new flowering of a pluralist US. The Immigration and Nationality Act reversed decades of immigration policies designed to block non-whites from the US and granted millions of Asians, Africans and Latin Americans the opportunity to experience the American dream.
“On September 11, 2001, Muslim immigrants from the Middle East and South Asia who had been attracted to pluralist America woke to find they had tumbled from their comfortable positions in the professional middle class. These Muslims had not studied enough history to know that this was but another side of American society. From the time of the earliest settlers, Americans have reacted with ferocity to any threat. The policy of zero tolerance is embedded in the deep structures of their society. Muslims saw that their beloved pluralist America had morphed into a minatory predator and were baffled,” writes Ahmed.
I have quoted this paragraph verbatim for it crystallises the mayhem that rules our lives post-9/11. Ahmed details the Bush-Cheney terms and how “they twisted the law to their predatory vision”. The war in Iraq was based on the created threat of weapons of mass destruction and the terrorist threat enacted the Patriot Act. “The spirit and content of the Bush administration’s harsh actions were in keeping with the old predator identity of Josiah Winslow and Andrew Jackson, except that now the targets would be Muslims. Dick Cheney became the poster-child of the predator identity.”
After the reader grasps, with epiphany like clarity, the genesis of Islamophobia, Ahmed details his odyssey across the land. Strident verbal abuse at ‘Hikma’, a group of Muslim students in Los Angeles, contrasts with the many events of soothing warmth. In almost a sine curve fashion, the book details the various Muslim mindsets in prisons, among African-Americans, Latino-Americans, South Asians, converts to Islam and many others. Individual stories underscore the pride, pain and perplexity that run in American-Muslims.
Throughout the book, the author juxtaposes the perspective of the Muslim-American with the non-Muslim one. The ease with which Akbar Ahmed details history and comfortably jumps to modern-day rappers and youth icons testify to his skill as an anthropologist.
Ahmed describes meetings with literalist Muslims, also known as Salafi or Wahabi, detailing their concrete view of socio-politics in much the same way that they interpret Islam. In the section on ‘Homegrown Terrorists’, the author is aghast at the tone of CNN interviewer Wolf Blitzer: “Here was a top media personality asking me if there was a ‘perverse’ school of Islamic thought that required Muslims to go to strip clubs and enjoy lap dancing while at the same time getting ready to kill” and whether Major Nidal Hassan was an ‘Islamic jihadist terrorist’ or just someone who had gone ‘berserk’. The author’s sad resignation can be noted in this line: “The debate about Muslims had gone on for years, yet this latest combination of terms proved that Americans were nowhere close to understanding Muslims and Muslims to explaining themselves satisfactorily.”
The expanse and depth of Journey into America is difficult to accurately portray. Muslims and non-Muslims, especially in leadership positions, must own a copy, dog-ear it and return to it for the treasure house of information and sharp analysis that it is. It will be the talk of the town and you would not want to be left out.
Mahjabeen Islam is a columnist, family physician and addictionist with a practice in Toledo Ohio. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org