Struggling to fit Islam - the divine religion - into the American mainstream

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Aisha Geissinger

Jumada' al-Ula' 10, 1419 1998-09-01

Book Review

by Aisha Geissinger (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 13, Jumada' al-Ula', 1419)

AMERICAN JIHAD - ISLAM AFTER MALCOLM X By Steven Barboza. Published by Doubleday, New York, NY, US. 1994. pp 370.

In 1993, there were between five and eight million Muslims living in the US, according to the most reliable estimates. Of these, 42 percent were African-American, 1.6 percent white American, and 5,000 Hispanic-American. Muslims are probably the second-largest religious group in the US. Islam, however, is still perceived as alien to America, and Muslims as foreigners. One reason for this perception is the airing of ‘documentaries’ such as Steven Emerson’s ‘Jihad in America’ (1994) which portray Muslims as ‘terrorists’ and ‘fanatics.’

Steven Barboza’s book, American Jihad, is an inversion of the message of Emerson’s ‘Jihad in America’. Barboza uses the idea of jihad and the life of Malcolm X - a combination guaranteed to get most Americans’ attention - as starting-points for a discussion of the different ways American Muslims practise jihad.

Barboza states that the book is not intended to be a work of theology, nor a discussion of ‘highly politicized secret societies that operate surreptitiously on the fringes of Islam,’ but an attempt to ‘feel the pulse of Islamic society in America, to tell what is happening in a community of millions of converts to a religion that is so steeped in myth it remains as mysterious to most Americans as a woman behind a veil.’

He discusses the meaning of jihad, and notes that it has an inner and an outer aspect. The inner jihad is the greater jihad, and it is a lifelong effort to change the objectionable aspects of one’s character and to live according to divine guidance. The outer and lesser jihad is the effort of a believer to stand up for truth and justice by speaking, writing, or taking action, for Islam forbids passive submission to injustice.

He uses the example of Malcolm X to illustrate these two aspects of jihad: Malcolm’s greater jihad was to change himself from a criminal into an upright man, while his lesser jihad was his political activism. This distinction between the greater and the lesser jihad has often been used by modernist Muslim writers to downplay the role of jihad in Islam. As such, it sounds suspiciously apologetic if not an attempt at obfuscation to the average American reader. Barboza addresses this by showing that belief in and practise of the greater jihad is a reality among Muslims in America, and that the lesser jihad is engaged in by American Muslims through such non-violent activities as community service.

The book is made up of ‘portrait/interviews’ of a number of American Muslims of differing backgrounds with varying degrees of knowledge and practise of Islam. In the introduction the author discusses his conversion to Islam, how he relates to Malcolm X’s life-story, and the meaning of jihad in Islam. The ‘portrait/interviews’ are grouped thematically in chapters, according to the type of jihad the interviewees are engaged in. Each chapter begins with a Qur’anic verse related to the theme, and a short introduction by the author. The book concludes with a three-page discussion of basic beliefs and practices of Islam, a glossary and a list of the ninety-nine names of Allah.

The Muslims interviewed include: a Harvard University professor, ex-criminals, American Marines, an AIDS patient, sporting heroes, ex-hippies and students. Some are famous, such as boxing champion Muhammad Ali and Robert Dickson Crane, formerly an advisor to ex-president Richard Nixon. Most are ordinary people, but many have extraordinary experiences or thoughts to relate. This variety gives the book an all-American feel and certainly makes for interesting reading. It conveys the diversity of the American Muslim scene and is a powerful refutation of media stereotypes of Muslims.

Many interviews seem calculated to address media misconceptions or over-generalizations. Muslims of immigrant background appear concerned about fitting into the American society while retaining their faith. Some are embarrassingly apologetic about being Muslim, and when they face opposition from Americans as they try to practise their faith, they retreat.

An Egyptian woman speaks of teaching her son how to fast, but says that when she asked her supervisor for permission to pray at work the latter responded: ‘No, I can’t let you do that, because everybody else is going to tell me they need a break for something.’ What was her response to this paternalistic denial of religious freedom? ‘It wasn’t a big deal for me’ (p. 247).

Not only are they light-years removed from Emerson’s jihad-mad potential fifth-columnists, but some are antagonistic to international Islamic movements. A Harvard student is quoted as saying that the ‘fundamentalists’ have ‘appropriated’ Islam and that they want to ‘replace that postcolonial elite with themselves’. ‘Islam has always had this appeal to the disinherited. And now that’s what’s spawning this Islamic movement’ (p. 61). His discussion is couched in the secular terms used by often hostile ‘experts’ on Islam which implicitly degrade politically active Muslims to the level of cold-blooded creatures - ‘spawning’ is, after all, done by fish and frogs, not humans.

African-American Muslims interviewed discuss various aspects of the complex history of the beginnings of their return to their Muslim heritage. Members of the Nation of Islam established by Elijah Muhammad, including some of the latter’s relatives, discuss life in the group. Former members of the Nation talk about how Elijah Muhammad’s teachings differ from the message of ‘orthodox’ Islam.

Interviews with Warith Deen Muhammad and Louis Farrakhan are included. Warith Deen Muhammad, one of Elijah Muhammad’s sons, brought many of his father’s followers in line with ‘orthodox’ Islam and largely dismantled the economic and social institutions of the Nation of Islam, while Louis Farrakhan heads a group of followers disgruntled with Warith Deen Muhammad’s changes. The question of whether or not Farrakhan is a Muslim is taken up; he professes belief in Islam, but some accuse him of nifaq due to his refusal to disassociate himself from many of Elijah Muhammad’s teachings which are contrary to Islam.

The issue of greatest concern to the average American - the question of whether or not African-American Muslims are catching the ‘jihad bug’ - is also dealt with. Violent incidents rooted in differences in belief between ‘orthodox’ Muslims and the Nation of Islam, and aspects of the Nation such as its ‘Fruit of Islam’ paramilitary group and its anti-white rhetoric have received unfavourable media exposure. However, most of the Muslims interviewed dismiss the violence as growing pains, and stress their commitment to brotherhood and non-violent means of solving disputes.

Media stereotypes about Muslim women are also refuted. The phenomenon of ‘welfare polygamy’, where a man has several wives, some or all of whom claim to be single mothers so that they can collect welfare, is mentioned by several interviewees and the point that this is unIslamic clearly made. A man and his three wives are all interviewed, and they stress the cooperative aspect of such a lifestyle. Rather than tearing families apart by jealousy and intrigue, polygamy can result in sisterhood among co-wives and more security for the children. A teenage girl wearing hijab to school makes it clear that she herself chose to dress Islamically, despite pressure and harassment from teachers and other students.

The book does not only challenge stereotypes, but puts forward a vision of what it means to be an American Muslim. The interviewees assert their right to live in America and practise Islam, and are confident that Islam has much to offer the American society as a whole. The author also discusses the role of Islam in improving conditions in inner-city ghettos and rehabilitating drug addicts.

Muslims can offer America everything from clean, uplifting rap music to solutions to the most pressing problems of American society. According to Crane: ‘Muslims have an overall paradigm of thought which is exactly the paradigm that the founding fathers of America had, and our role should be to revive this original paradigm, which is that truth comes from God - it’s not made by man; and that truth is the only source of justiceà’ (p. 287). He states that Muslims need to take the basic rights of man stated by the classical scholars, such as the right to life, honour, security of property, and education, apply them to America’s social problems and devise ‘Islamic’ solutions.

Apparently, Muslims in America will be allowed to do what groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the now-banned Refah Party in Turkey have been prevented from doing by their countries’ secular, pro-American governments! As a political programme, such an idea is obviously unworkable. It would be opposed both by civil libertarians, who are anxious to remove every vestige of religion from the political arena, and religious conservatives, who believe that the only religious values promoted in public life should be Christian. This aspect of Barboza’s book seems certain to alarm rather than reassure many Americans about the consequences of a growing Muslim population in their midst.

Crane and a number of other interviewees are obviously trying to grapple with the question: what does it mean to be an American Muslim? To be an American it is not enough to be born in America, as one interviewee perceptively points out. If a cat were to have kittens in an oven, the kittens would still be kittens, not biscuits. There is a racial element to being an American. White Americans are usually simply called Americans, while others are referred to as Native Americans, African Americans, and so forth.

But the element that makes general Custer, who fought the Natives to clear the way for white settlers, incontrovertibly an American, while Geronimo, the Apache chief who defended his part of America against the encroachment of white settlers, is at best considered a native American, is not primarily race but worldview. An American is one who accepts the modern, secular values of the ‘Enlightenment’ - and believes he has the right and the duty to similarly ‘enlighten’ others by any means necessary.

Thus American oppression of the native peoples and enslavement of Africans are not temporary glitches in an otherwise smooth journey upward to the promised land of freedom, equality and justice, but systemic. Societies not adhering to a worldview derived from the Enlightenment must be in darkness; light and dark obviously cannot coexist. But how can Muslims fit into this? Do they really want to claim a share in a worldview which is secular and materialistic, and has resulted in the destruction of whole societies and ecosystems? Can Muslims really be ‘American’ and remain faithful to their deen?

Crane’s plan seeks to find a way out of this dilemma by hijacking the paradigm of America’s founding fathers and claiming it as ‘Islamic’. When the founding fathers stated that truth comes from God, they meant that this truth can be known by any common (white) man reading the Bible in the light of his own conscience. No religious, political or academic authorities have the right to decide what God intends by any passage of scripture and impose this on the populace. As men will understand the will of God in different ways, the State must be secular so as not to unjustly favour any one interpretation. But Muslims understand that truth coming from God means that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala sends revelation to guide humanity. The last revelation, the Holy Qur’an, is to be understood and interpreted authoritatively by scholars (ulama).

Hijacking ideas, or planes, may result in apparent short-term benefits, but the long-term consequences are seldom worthwhile. Crane’s ideas help provide an ‘Islamic’ rationale for joining the Marines, running for political office or pledging allegiance to the flag, so they make the lives of many American Muslims easier. Floating with the tide is always easier than swimming against it. But the founding fathers’ approach to truth has resulted in a cafeteria-style approach to religion in America, with many people taking their religion’s teachings which they like and rejecting the rest.

Reportedly, 81 percent of Americans believe in heaven, only 63 percent believe in hell, and 25 percent believe in astrology. Will such an approach to Islam lead to the survival of Islam (surrender to Allah)? If Muslims water down Islam to buy acceptance into American society will they have any better chances of survival than the Bosnians, who despite their assimilation were not deemed European enough to merit protection from Serbian genocide?

It will merely mislead Muslims, give them a false sense of security, and betray those Americans whose hearts are open to Islam - the deprived, who need to know that there is an alternative to American ‘values’, and those who have benefitted from the system, who need to question their assumptions of superiority, rooted in racism and post-’Enlightenment’ arrogance, which are in fact a form of idolatry. This questioning is the most pressing ‘American jihad’ needing to be undertaken by American Muslims.

Muslims in America are far more likely to ensure their existence by increasing their commitment to Islam as a complete way of life rather than a cultural accessory, and by working towards unity. Barboza’s book refers repeatedly to the numerous racial, ethnic, class, political divisions, as well as those based on schools of thought, which plague Muslims in America. These, of course, set the scene for the division of Muslims into ‘mainstream’ and ‘extremist’ categories, open to manipulation and unable to stand together.

American Jihad is a good introduction to Islam in America, and goes a long way toward offering an alternative to media stereotypes of Muslims. At the same time, it provides food for thought for those Muslims who are concerned about the future of Islam in America.

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