Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam by Akbar Ahmed

I am sure that most of our readers share my anguish over the cultural anger and inter-faith hostilities these days.  From wacky Quran burnings to the ugly protests near Ground Zero to the jabs at those concerned about extremist forms of Islam, as if outrage about terrorism inspired by off-the-chart evil forms of religion is somehow in bad taste, the cultural wars are blazing.  I’ve not commented much, although you know we have all sorts of books on Islam, on justly speaking in public, and on civility (I’ll do a post on that when the updated edition of Rich Mouw’s wonderful Uncommon Decency arrives, soon.)


For now, though, I am nearly done a truly remarkable book, a long sprawling story that is as complex as the topic: can modern day Islam be American, and can America be hospitable to its Islamic citizens?  Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam (Brookings Insitution Press; $29.95) by Muslim anthropologist and well-loved American University professor, Dr. Akbar Ahmed is a journey across the United States, somewhat like a 21st century de Tocqueville, with a particular emphasis on the variety of Muslim communities and their values and civic attitudes.  However, before he can get to this big question–one, finally, about cultural and civic pluralism—Ahmed must lay out his methodology, which has a lot to do with telling the story of America, her founding vision(s), the way in which immigrant cultures have or haven’t accommodated themselves to the American ways.  How, then, given the variety of narratives about what it means to be an American, and these different social experiences of other minorities to live in America, do recent Islamic immigrants relate to those narratives? 

In other words, he does a lot of storytelling, from the high percentage of Muslim slaves that were brought here in the early centuries, the brutal and gross treatment of the native populations, the high-minded, but complicated visions of the pilgrims and, later, the Puritans.  Naturally, he pays attention to what I call the W’s.  Witherspoon, Winslow, Winthrop, and, of course, Roger Williams.  Williams is Ahmed’s kind of American, one who made peace with the locals, made room for all, and sought freedom and full separation of church and state.

In fact, part of the research methodology of Dr. A and his A-team (he seems like a fun enough guy that I can joke) is that they would ask Muslims their reaction to a documentary they had made about Plymouth Rock.  Oh, how civil religion, patriotism, multiply narrations of our history (can anybody say Howard Zinn?) and what Jefferson termed “America’s original sin” (slavery and racism) are “seen” and interpreted differently by different groupings of people.  Worldviews matter, I’ve been saying here since the day we opened our bookstore, and this notion of an interpretive lenses that shapes our understandings come seriously in to play in any anthropology, but surely, it is not even below the proverbial surface when black Muslims, or recent Arab immigrants are asked about the founding spirit of America.  Whew.  Even the wise and widely-traveled Ahmed and his crack team of helpers were shocked at some of what they heard and saw and experienced, especially as the ancient stories are told in ways that are exclusive and ideological.

There are whole chapters on the different permiatations of Islam within the African American community—an important bit of information that goes deeper and wider than the peculiar Mr. Farrakhan or the drama of Malcom X.  There is stuff about how immigrant Muslims view the more lenient African American Muslims (even those who have rejected as unorthodox the Nation of Islam.)  There are chapters about the relationship of Muslims and Jews in America.  (Mr. Ahmed has traveled a bit doing inter-faith dialogues with the grieving parents of Daniel Perl, the Jewish journalist who was brutally be-headed by radicals in the very town Ahmed grew up in.) The questions about how more moderate Muslims relate to the power-hungry radicals that are around were powerful—the episode in Omaha was chilling, as pro-jihadist extremists who had driven out of their mosque a moderate imam, bully the others and sidetrack the meetings.  Yes, this is on-the-ground sociology, research on the fly, with these guys following their anthropologist-instincts and finding their way into the most amazing conversations.  Did you know there are conversations between Muslim and Mormons in Utah?  Have you ever imagined what converts to Islam go through?  Do you know Dave Egger’s story of Mr. Zeitoun, jailed and abused unjustly during the Katrina tragedy?  Did you know there are mosques in Las Vegas?  Did you know there are over 60,000 Bosnian Muslims in St. Louis?  And, of course, Dearborn, Michigan, is the largest Islamic center in the US.  The team visited over 75 cities over nearly a year, so there is plenty to tell.

Ahmed is not taking us on a circus road-trip, though, seeking out the oddballs.  He meets with prestigious leaders, tells the inspiring stories of tons of interesting people and many are well

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spoken and insightful. Well, not all, though, since some (if I do say so) interviewees make fools of themselves. (Some of the claims of the more radical African American Muslims are particularly eccentric, and it reminds me of how deeply alienated some fellow-citizens are.)  His fieldwork includes visiting and spending time with the most amazing people, of various faiths, from the elegant Joanne Herring, the woman who funded “Mr. Wilson’s War” against the Russians in Afghanistan to Joel Olsteen’s church to the two Muslim members of the U.S. Congress to white supremacists and their predatory vision of what we must do to keep American pure

It will come as no surprise that this prominent author (he is also the first Distinguished Chair of Middle East and Islamic Studies at the U.S. Naval Academy and was a high commissioner to the United Kingdom from Pakistan) has drawn the accolades of many.  The book has endorsements from scholars as different as Tony Blankley from the Heritage Foundation and Eboo Patel, the founder of Interfaith Your Core.  Such a book, even one that is over 500 pages, cannot possible ask all the right questions and although he and his team logged countless months in this fieldwork, there are voices and perspectives they missed.  Still, I have thoroughly enjoyed it, it has made me think, it has made me wish to be in greater contact with folks outside of my own religious and cultural community, and it has reminded me that it is a very, very good question, namely, what does it mean to be an American?  And can the story of American be told and construed in such a way that it upholds a dream not of a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic or crazy quilt.  Principled pluralism is what the old Dutch religious leader and politico Abraham Kuyper called it.  Journey into America takes us back in history and offers a glimpse into the future.  It is worth twice to the price to learn this stuff, and well worth the hours invested in reading through this lively, provocative work.

Journey into America is asking profound questions for us
all, but it is mostly a study of Muslims.  (Indeed, it is the most
comprehensive study to date of the American Muslim community.)  He takes
long and leisurely side-tracks and tries to understand not only the
American Islamic traditions and faith communities, but how other
Americans (especially whites, of course) are reacting to their new
Muslim neighbors.  This is an unprecedented exploration, in many ways, a
follow up on his highly acclaimed 2007 release of a similar “listening
trip” and research project in the Middle East.  (That one was called Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, also published by Brookings.)  A documentary film has been made of their journey, exploring the nature of the Muslim communities in America and, more so, the very nature of the American identity.  Watch for it later this fall.



Although I intended to just tell you about this one book, I have to add a coda.  A Common Word: Muslims and Christians on Loving God and Neighbor is a remarkable collection edited by Miroslav Volf, Ghazi bin Muhammand and Melissa Yarrington (Eerdmans; $14.00.)  It isn’t every theological symposium whose published edition gets a foreward by Tony Blair. This is cutting-edge global dialogue.

Here is what is written on the back cover:

You may have heard the background to this: in late 2007 Muslim leaders from around the world together issued in the pages of the New York Times an open letter to Christians inviting cooperation as a step towards peace.  That letter, “A Common Word between Us and You,” acknowledged real differences between the two faiths but nonetheless contended that “righteousness and good works” should be the only areas in which they compete.  The 138 signatories included over a dozen grand muftis, an ayatollah, and a Jordanian prince, and the document was widely considered a groundbreaking step…

That original letter and a collaborative Christian response—“Loving God and Neighbor Together”—both appear in this remarkable volume. Building on those original momentous documents, A Common Word further includes subsequent commentary and dialogue between Muslims and Christian scholars addressing critical and frequently asked questions.  All in all, this eventful book encapsulates a brave and encouraging move toward harmony and accord between two world religions so often seen to be at odds.


Here is a special deal: buy Journey into America at a special discounted price ($25.00) and we will sell A Common Word at HALF-PRCE— $7.00  While supplies last!  (Even if you don’t want to order the half price paperback you can still get the sale price of Journey.)   Order here. 

Hearts & Minds 234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717.246.3333

One thought on “Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam by Akbar Ahmed

  1. In the God’s Politics blog, Jim Wallis pointed quoted an evangelical pastor who helped out a local Islamic center. He wrote,
    …the story reported Sunday morning on CNN (from WMC-TV in Memphis, Tennessee) about how another pastor and his congregation called Heart Song Church first welcomed a new Islamic cultural center into their neighborhood, then offered their own church facilities for their Muslim neighbors to use for Ramadan prayer services over the last month. Pastor Steve Stone didn’t threaten to burn the Quran but said, “I don’t know a lot about Islam, and I know only one fellow who is a Muslim. It was going to be a learning process for me, but we follow Jesus, and he tells us to love our neighbors.”
    Although the book reviewed above tells some harsh stories and reports that many Muslims feel like they’ve been treated poorly, there are also stories just like this. There’s good news and bad news in all this, and it is nice to know of folks who want to be kindly.

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