Anyone who realizes that they do not need to be enlightened about Islam should read journalist Paul Barrett’s “American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion.” This includes non-Muslims who claim that the average Muslims have no condemned the fundamentalist violence that is committed under the banner of their religion or that all Muslim women wear a veil or that Islam is inherently a warlike religion. This also includes Muslims, who respond to Islamist terrorism simply by talking about the sins of Israel or claiming that the problem of the role of women or violent fanatics does not exist in Islam or insisting that Islam is purely a peaceful religion. In his book, Barrett reports with precise research and unsparing eye, holding up a mirror to both the Muslim and non-Muslim community to show them the blemishes and flaws of their ideological expressions, in the quest to find the true ‘soul’ of Islam.
It is almost a miracle that Barrett, a former Business Week editor and reporter, succeeds in writing about the defensive, paranoid and prejudiced conflict over the soul of Islam in such a clear, sensible and thoughtful manner. Although Barrett’s “American Islam” has certain journalistic traits because of its journalist-turned-author, but strictly speaking, he has not written it in that impartial, newspaper-reporting style. Barrett indulges in passing stern judgment on the seven American Muslims he profiles in his book, who are all struggling to find Islam’s place in the American world. When it comes to the issues raised in this book, Barrett seems to have his own ideals of right and wrong, and he fearlessly challenges his subjects. Unlike showier journals would be tempted to make a spectacle of the role they played in researching these stories, Barrett actually keeps himself in the background. Above all, “American Islam” is a meticulously fair book.
Few of the Muslims profiled in Barrett’s book match almost every stereotype that is typically harbored by Westerners about faithful Muslims. However, in reality, he seems to be a bit inclined towards the progressive and unconventional members of Islam, but he aims to every side its due. These seven profiles remind of the notable diversity of Islam in America, and he points out that American Muslims are as diverse as Christians are. Barrett is apparently trying to highlight the ignorance of non-Muslim Americans of the contemporary and historical expressions of Islam. The message that Barrett is conveying through the cover and the book itself is apparent: Muslims are a part of America, and so non-Muslim Americans should see them as individuals, rather than stereotypes. Barrett’s conclusion is that Muslims “face critical choices” in the struggle to find the soul of Islam in America, and the “attitudes and ideas” that will overcome them cannot be predicted.
Barrett presents the struggles and tensions of the Muslims living their faith in America quite thoughtfully. He neither defames nor excuses the Muslims he writes about. He also presents a variety of interesting facts about American Muslims, such as a majority of them are not Arab and they are better educated and more prosperous than Americans (Barrett 7), contrary what Westerns seem to believe. In the very first statement of his book: “By the 1920s tiny Ross, North Dakota had about thirty Muslim families, originally from Damascus by way of Minnesota” (Barrett 16), Barrett also the patterns of American Muslim immigration as provided by American history. Barrett points out that following the discipline of Muslim path has proved to be reforming for neighborhoods and prisoners, and has enhanced many minority communities. Barrett instructively covers the history of Islam and the African-American community, which is something that many Americans are most likely not aware of.
The fact that Barrett is able to sort out the historical and political differences between the extreme forms of Islam, such as Salafism and Wahabism, and other types of Islam is one of the most helpful insights that this provides. Barrett attributes the growing influence of these extreme fundamentalist forms of Islam to the wealthy elite of Saudi Arabia. What many Americans may not know is that Saudi leaders pour their innumerable wealth into these fundamentalist projects to bolster their Islamic reputation. This differentiation helps in reading the range of responses that American Muslims have to the political events throughout the globe and in the United States. Overall, it is apparent that Barrett is describing that no religion is genuinely pious or inherently violent. Barrett openly invites his readers, specifically his fellow non-Muslim Americans, to thoughtfully reconsider their misguided notions of American Muslims, and the joys and stresses they struggle with.
Barrett writes his book with a captivating and straightforward style, almost like a good storyteller and this allows the seven Muslims characters to speak for themselves. As mentioned, “American Islam” reassuringly notes that American Muslims are better educated, more politically active and prosperous that other immigrants living in the United States. At this point, he believes Muslims are simply being stigmatized. The Muslims that Barrett profiles in his book are proof that there are American Muslims who are struggling to eradicate extremism from the soul of Islam. Barrett’s book is neither indiscriminately positive or mindlessly alarmist; rather he takes a neutral stance while reporting on this topic. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is the fact that Barrett himself reveals that he is Jew, and how he managed to gain the trust of so many Muslims and tell their stories fairly without the interference of typical Western feelings.
Barrett, Paul M. American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion. 1st ed. Picador, 2007. Print.