More than five years after Sept. 11, 2001, many Americans are still grappling with doubts about Islam and concerns about the American Muslim community.
Although an estimated 6 million Muslims live in the United States today, 60 percent of Americans say they do not know a Muslim, much less have one as a neighbor. More than one-third say they question Muslims' loyalty to this country (although polls show that those acquainted with Muslims hold more positive views).
As Americans wonder whether the home-grown extremism encountered in London could develop here, two new books offer valuable insights into the Muslim-American experience.
Both are written by seasoned journalists, outsiders (one Jewish, the other Christian) who have nevertheless gained access to the lives of both prominent and ordinary members of the faith.
In American Islam: The Struggle for the Soul of a Religion, Paul Barrett sketches complex, stereotype-defying portraits of seven individuals. These include a politically astute newspaper publisher in Dearborn, Mich.; a black imam from Brooklyn, N.Y.; a convert to Sufism; a feminist; and a legal scholar whose writings on the Koran and sharia challenge fundamentalism.
Barrett covered the Muslim community for The Wall Street Journal before moving to Business Week, and he spent many hours in homes and mosques across the US. "Some Muslim preachers, sad to say, give sermons condemning nonbelievers," he writes, "but these messages are not that different ... from those delivered in some fundamentalist Christian churches."
Still, the profiles show the tensions some Muslims face as a result of internal struggles in the faith between strict orthodoxy and a more moderate Islam, or between Sufi and other sects, or over the role of women in the mosque.
The experience of Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, is a case in point. A prolific writer leading the charge against the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, he is a hero to progressive Muslims, yet controversial among others. His work on such subjects as tolerance toward other faiths and the role of women has brought threats on his life.
Other profiles reveal the challenge of straddling two cultures. Osama Siblani, a dynamic Lebanese-born publisher, has a deep love for the US, yet strongly disagrees with its foreign policy.
Sami Omar al-Hussayen, a highly respected Saudi graduate student at the University of Idaho, was tried for supporting terrorism by serving as a webmaster for questionable Arab-speaking sites. He was found innocent – yet he and his family are deported.
More encouraging is the story of Mustafa Saied, an Indian student at the University of Tennessee who was drawn into Islamic radicalism by the Muslim Brotherhood and then "won back" by moderate members of the Muslim community. Now a family man and business owner in Florida, Mr. Saied promotes moderate Islam in online forums.
The aptly titled Mecca and Main Street by Geneive Abdo explores a younger generation that is shaping an identity that is both American and Muslim.
An American of Lebanese-Christian background, Abdo reported from the Middle East for nearly a decade. Here she draws on three years of interviewing in major US cities to produce a book that is honest, perceptive, and nuanced.
Her reporting demonstrates that the societal suspicions and government intrusions since 9/11 have led Muslims to embrace their faith more vigorously, study more deeply, and try to bridge ethnic divisions to create a more unified Muslim community.
On the West Coast, nationally popular imams Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir, of the Zaytuna Institute, hold teaching sessions avidly attended by young men and women, many of whom, Abdo says, are engaged in a "rejectionist movement" – an attempt to create a world where they can find comfort in their faith while "negotiating the rigors of daily life in modern America."
In Chicago, social activist Rami Nashashibi engages hip-hop artists to help draw Chicago street kids into a Muslim multicultural network. In Michigan, young leaders of a Muslim Student Association brave threats (and a beating) to move the organization toward a more moderate, pluralistic version of Islam.
Abdo also explores the growing influence of women in mosque life as well as the challenges they face in a tight-knit, conservative Yemeni community near Detroit.
These absorbing books introduce a Muslim community that is both an American immigration success story and a population struggling to define itself under unprecedented circumstances. There are elements of fundamentalism, but that, Barrett writes, does not necessarily entail violence.
The authors agree the resolution of this struggle depends as much on non-Muslim Americans as on Muslims. Barrett outlines steps government officials and ordinary citizens can take to ensure that Muslims enjoy a full sense of citizenship.
Abdo sees things American Muslim youth have in common with European Muslims, but little evidence they are answering the call of extremism. More pertinent is the image of hijab-wearing Hadia Mubarak, called "Magic Muslim" by her soccer teammates. The articulate young woman broke the glass ceiling to head the national Muslim Student Association and plans to become a lawyer.
• Jane Lampman is a Monitor staffer.