Common Ground

A young worshipper listens to the Khutba during Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of North America convention in September.
A young worshipper listens to the Khutba during Friday prayer at the Islamic Society of North America convention in September. (M. Spencer Green / Ap)
Reviewed by Steven Simon
Sunday, November 12, 2006


Muslim Life in America After 9/11

By Geneive Abdo

Oxford Univ. 214 pp. $26

Homegrown, radicalized Islamists have set off bombs in Madrid and London; could it happen here? Given rising anxiety about the possible alienation of American Muslims, a readable book offering a responsible yet sympathetic profile of that community should be welcomed. Five years after 9/11, Geneive Abdo, who has reported skillfully on Islamism in Egypt and Iran, has produced just such a book.

Her reporting shows that Muslim immigrants have much in common with Americans from other lands and cultures. Traditional Muslims arriving from the Middle East and South Asia fear that their children will succumb to the allure of big-city life and abandon the faith. Such newcomers are embracing the same strategies adopted by Jewish immigrants a century ago: setting up religious schools, charities and houses of worship that double as community centers.

Yet Muslim settlement in America has had its own patterns, of which Abdo offers a brief but lucid history. The first to arrive were slaves from West Africa who were converted to Christianity. The subsequent "prairie" generation, which arrived in the mid-19th century, homesteaded in the Midwest but proved too isolated to flourish. A new wave of Muslim immigrants followed the liberalization of U.S. immigration laws in 1965 -- and set out not merely to survive but to thrive. Muslim Americans, Abdo writes, are now amply represented in white-collar professions and enjoy a median income slightly above that of the overall population.

Abdo's description of the neo-traditionalism of this community is fascinating. She depicts a typical "enclave culture," a religious community that sees itself as beleaguered and is therefore preoccupied by boundaries -- between us and them, male and female, real Muslim and impostor. Defections as well as intrusions fuel the community's sense of danger, as do the glittering vulgarity and the "anything goes" gusto of American society. Jarringly, Abdo at times seems less a reporter than an advocate of a cloistered worldview, as when she puts down Irshad Manji, a Muslim dissenter, as a self-promoting phony. Nonetheless, Abdo's account of the struggles within Muslim organizations on college campuses suggests how the community as a whole may resolve its intramural conflict: by finding a middle way between traditionalist hardliners and those who want to preserve their Muslim identity without isolating themselves, much as modern Orthodox Jews and evangelical Protestants have done in secular universities.

Abdo shows how 9/11 shook the world of American Muslims. Suddenly, they were seen by their neighbors -- and their government -- in the global context of Islamist terror. A combination of aggressive law enforcement, indiscriminate use of immigration laws and hyped-up prosecutions left Muslims in doubt about their place in society. Those who reacted by keeping their heads down (or veiled) to avoid attracting attention only exposed themselves to accusations of indifference to the tragedy -- or worse.

The net result, Abdo concludes, is a community increasingly inclined to separatism. Elsewhere, this has provided fertile ground for radicals such as Osama bin Laden. The United States is scarcely on a slippery slope to Europe's fate, but the security of our society, Abdo shows, now depends on a spirit of inclusiveness and generosity. In Washington, that means appointing more Muslims to government jobs, preserving civil liberties, being more attentive to their foreign policy concerns and making adjustments consistent with U.S. strategic interests. In our neighborhoods, that means an awareness that when we talk about Muslims, we are talking not about the enemy but about the person next door -- someone whose family, like those of other immigrants, came here to escape harsh and uncertain lives. ยท

Steven Simon, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is co-author of "The Age of Sacred Terror" and "The Next Attack."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company