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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Linda Brandi Cateura
Hippocrene, 279 pages, $24.95
The American Muslim experience

Book illuminates shades of belief in fastest-growing religion


Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, with a 60-fold increase since 1970. Muslims now number some 6 million here among 1.2 billion worldwide -- the largest faith community. Given these notable statistics, Linda Brandi Cateura makes an important contribution in Voices of American Muslims, introducing American readers to more than a score of fellow citizens, who range from an African-American doula (midwife) to a jazz musician with Boston Brahmin roots, from transit policeman to actress, from students to professionals.

The author turned to this subject partly out of empathy for Muslims constrained in this time of terrorism. Their experiences recalled the separateness her own family felt in World War II when the United States was at war with Italy -- and their short-wave radio was an illegal possession. Ms. Cateura, who has done four other interview-style books, invariably uncovers interesting people. Her chosen Americans have various backgrounds in their faith, whether born to it or converts, whether native to the United States or immigrants, whether strict or more relaxed in their religious practice. All contribute viewpoints worth hearing on America and Islam and have engaging personal stories.

A prevailing motif is love of this country, even as her American Muslim subjects see things to be critical of. Their perspectives are instructive, their experiences sometimes riveting. The mother of a Maryland ninth-grader who left a Muslim school for a public high school saw “so much peer pressure on unnecessary things [like] pop music or shallow sitcoms. A Muslim-school principal whose Illinois home and school were post-9/11 targets prays for the day when “Muslim schools will be considered just like Catholic schools, like Jewish schools, like Lutheran schools. But it may take 20 to 50 years,” he conceded, “depending on what lies ahead.”

Probably the highest-profile American Muslim included is Dr. Elias Zerhouni, head of the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Zerhouni highlights the absence of a priesthood in Islam as a factor that leaves it open to fundamentalism and terrorists. “They take upon themselves the power of clergy. That is completely antithetical to Islam. Your beliefs, your morals, your values are between you and God. There’s no one in between.”

One person is convinced that the U.S. government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Several others said the question of America’s responsibility for 9/11 was largely sidestepped after the attacks and still needs to be explored.

The reader gleans instruction in shades of Islam -- Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Taliban and the ultra-orthodox Saudi doctrine, Wahhabi. With it comes an understanding of the influence of individual countries; their indigenous customs, often stereotyped as Muslim, are not universal to the religion. To help bridge the cross-cultural divide, Ms. Cateura provides a 60-word glossary. Her bookend chapters and a preface by Omid Safi, Colgate University professor of Islamic studies, give pertinent data and valuable insights.

One interviewee who followed the step-down path of many earlier European newcomers is Zaki Hanafy -- trial lawyer in Egypt, limousine driver in Brooklyn. Mr. Hanafy’s advocacy skills remain strong, however, as he attacks a widespread misconception. “There is no support in the Quran or in the hadith [traditions, teachings, stories of Muhammad] for what happened on 9/11. Islamic law is adamant about personal safety. What is most criminal about these acts is that they create fear in the victim, and creating fear in the victim, even without killing him, equals death for the criminal.”

Michael Wolfe’s description of the 9/11 perpetrators was “political desperadoes wrapped in the flag of a peaceful faith.” A poet, editor and TV documentary maker, Mr. Wolfe comes out of a Jewish-Christian background. Among his four books on the Muslim faith, one is devoted to haj, the Mecca pilgrimage that is one of the Five Pillars of Islam; his newest is Taking Back Islam.

Making haj made the inclusiveness of Islam vivid to Dr. Abdul Jamil Khan, a professor of medicine and hospital department chair: “Everybody is the same, rich and poor, black and white, there is no difference. That dawns on you during haj.” Said Egyptian-born American Walid Ahmed, imam of one of the two mosques in Anchorage, Alaska: “Every year, it is the biggest gathering of human beings from all over the earth in one place. All these people make haj for one thing only. Not for trade or for making money or for doing business. They go to worship.”

Numerous voices connect the three monotheistic religions. Mr. Ahmed, who as imam leads the Friday ritual prayer in the mosque, explains the scriptural sources Muslims revere: “They believe in the Bible, they believe in the Torah, they believe in the Quran. They believe in every holy book from God through the messengers.” As messengers he counts the Jewish prophets, and Moses, Noah, Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad. Non-Muslims would be surprised, he noted, to know that the Quran mentions Aissa (Arabic for Jesus) and Moses more often than Muhammad, “yet Muhammad is a prophet, like the others.”

Many of these Muslims foresee a major American contribution to Islam as well as an Islamic contribution to America. Feisal Abdul Rauf, imam of a Manhattan mosque, senses that “in the long-term, there will come out of the Muslim immigrant experience an American expression of Islam.” The executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations, Al-Haaj Ghazi Y. Khanhan, is confident that Muslims will unite with their fellow Americans of all backgrounds. “We came on different ships,” he pointed out, “but we are really in the same boat!”

Susanne Washburn, a freelance journalist who lives in Vermont, is a former TIME magazine senior reporter.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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