Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Books Yay!: Journey into America, by Dr. Akbar Ahmed

Most people have belts of life events, when everyone you know is getting married, or having a kid, or buying a house/condo, etc.  For nerds, there’s an occasional Publication Belt, and this is one of my favorite instances of said phenomenon.  I went to American University with Frankie Martin, who worked as a researcher on Dr. Akbar Ahmed’s Journey into America project, which resulted in this book.  I’ve followed the press and the team as they’ve progressed through this project, and I believe that they are doing essential work.  I also appreciate that Dr. Ahmed was wise enough to pick someone so level-headed and rational as Frankie to work on this project.  I cannot imagine a better team member and truth be told, the more I think about it, the more I rue the absence of projects in my life into which I could rope Frankie.  Besides being a top notch academic, he’s also a wonderful friend with a high tolerance for weirdness, which is essential in my relationships.  I remember one day when we were going to a Baltimore Orioles vs. New York Yankees game with him at Camden Yards, and when he met me at my apartment, I was decked out in head to toe Red Sox gear and drinking milk out of a martini glass because all my normal glasses for milk were in the dishwasher (and also because I am super, super classy).  Frankie was completely unfazed by all of this, and still went to the game with me, which turned out to be an eventful one since an End of the World style thunderstorm came up in the middle of the game and we stayed in the stands, watching the water drain off the field before the game resumed.  This is the kind of academic you need – one who stands with his demented friends even in the face of alarming weather and against all sanity.  Perhaps this is why the resulting book is so compelling.

Journey into America seeks to create an anthropological profile of Muslims in America and to pair it with a brief, relevant history of Muslim immigration and origins.  To do this, the team went to over seventy-five cities and more than a hundred mosques, interviewing Muslims, neighbors, other religious leaders, and other “men on the street” to better understand how individuals and communities approach their relationship with Islam.  The depth of this study provides a true portrait of how Muslim life in all its iterations proceeds.  No branch of Islam is left unexplored, and no environment is missing.  The inclusion of non-Muslim voices adds to the work as well, and adds significantly to the cultural and social study of the Muslim community.  After all, no one lives in a vacuum, and it would be a poor anthropological study indeed if it was limited to Muslims alone.

The resulting view of Muslim life is both surprising and completely predictable: Muslims come in all stripes and shades, and they all have complex relationships with their American identity.  Some are traditionally devout, some are devout in a more modernized way.  Some are inclusive, some exclusive.  This is not, however, to say that their Muslim identity is irrelevant.  In all of the cases shown, the subjects showed some tension between their Muslim identity, in which their religious identity stretches into their cultural life, and the American society, which is overall much more morally inclusive and undisciplined.  I think that this would probably be the case for most religious groups; America’s inclusive nature means that pulling out any one group will show that the group has different codes of conduct and ethics, which would generally seem more strict than American society at large.

I do feel that this book suffers from a slight shading of personal morality from two of the main players, Dr. Ahmed and researcher Hailey Woldt.  Dr. Ahmed obviously feels that there are serious moral deficiencies in American society, particularly amongst women, and I do feel that this comes through in some of the writing in an nonconstructive way.  These sentiments are often backed up by agreement from Woldt, an adult convert to Catholicism, whose more conservative Catholic views mirror Dr. Ahmed’s sentiments on American moral consequences.   I think this is a simple consequence of the reality I mentioned above – that any religious group will appear morally disparate from American morality at large – but it is a bit unfortunate that this comes through in the presentation at times.  It makes it a bit jarring for the reader.

I have high hopes for this book, because I think its description of Muslim America can go a long way in normalizing and “de-villifying” Muslims for Americans suffering from post-September-11th Islamophobia.  Dr. Ahmed also emphasizes the importance of dialogue in healing the wounds and misunderstandings that cut both ways.  Indeed, when Dr. Ahmed and his team interacted with more isolated Islamic communities, a clear detriment to their relationship with their immediate community and larger environment could be seen.  This is an important book and an important perspective, and I hope that it comes to occupy a place in our public discourse.

Crossposted at The Outpost


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