Monday, February 5, 2007
"Did they know you were Jewish?"
I often hear that question when people learn I've spent four years researching and writing a book about American Muslims.
The answer is yes, and rather than hinder my reporting, disclosure usually helped. For one thing, the differing reactions I got underscored a central point of my book: American Muslims are anything but monolithic.
Shiite Iraqi immigrants who originally supported the U.S. invasion of their homeland see the world differently from Sunnis who passionately opposed the war. White ex-hippie converts to Sufism, Islam's mystical cousin, have sharply different views from black ex-convict Muslims who embraced the faith behind bars.
American Islam is an intricate mixture of devout and secular, moderate and extreme, insular and integrated.
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Islamic law at UCLA, recounted how, in late 2001, his calls for Muslims to take responsibility for reining in extremist rhetoric led to violent threats by fellow Muslims. His voice heavy with emotion, the Egyptian American scholar told me that the only person who volunteered to shelter his family during that dark period was an Orthodox rabbi with whom Abou El Fadl had lectured.
"You can make this your home," said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who pointed out that the last place menacing Muslims would look for Abou El Fadl would be the living room of a Jewish clergyman.
Elsewhere, I was surprised to find myself looking into what was more a mirror than a window on an alien culture. Zafar Nomani, a retired biochemist in West Virginia, introduced himself to me with a combative series of lectures on America's many sins in the world. I sensed that a certain tension dissipated when I told him that his family's obsession with higher education and seeing the next generation outdo the last reminded me of the concerns of my Jewish grandparents.
Gradually, Nomani began admitting how much he admired American freedoms of speech and religion, the nation's (relatively) orderly elections and public services, which usually work.
During my several visits to their home in Morgantown, Nomani and his wife, Sajida, never failed to fill my stomach with spicy ground beef kebabs, chicken tikka masala, heaps of naan and Indian sweets. "Have more, have more," Sajida insisted. My Jewish grandmothers would have smiled and nodded.