This past week, the television personality and presidential candidate Donald Trump called for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States until, he said, “our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The announcement triggered massive news coverage and a storm of national and international condemnation, but this was cold comfort to those of us who have been paying attention to the rhetoric of the other candidates. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been a part of election cycles since at least 9/11. (Remember the controversy over the “Ground Zero mosque,” which was neither at Ground Zero nor a mosque?) This year, as we prepare for the 2016 presidential election, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee have all made statements that suggest they hold Muslims collectively responsible for acts of terrorism committed by jihadists.
One reason this rhetoric resonates with a sizable segment of the public is that Americans remain largely ignorant about fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim. A recent Brookings Institution poll shows that people who knew Muslims personally have far more favorable views of Muslims in general than those who don’t know any. This is true across the political spectrum.
Here are some books that will, I hope, complicate perceptions and deepen the conversation:
Muslims are commonly perceived as recent immigrants to this country. In fact, Muslims arrived on the continent with Spanish conquistadors long before the United States was a nation. Muslims also made up as many as 20 percent of the slaves brought to the country. Among these was Omar ibn Said, a Senegalese scholar who was captured and sold into bondage in 1807. He wrote 14 manuscripts, the most prominent of which is this, his autobiography.
Malcolm X’s life has been documented extensively in books, film and television, and its broadest outline — the transformation of a petty criminal into a political activist — is known to many Americans. But he was, above all, a fantastic storyteller, able to impose a narrative line on seemingly disparate events and find hope and purpose where before there was nothing but despair and anger. Few memoirs have the reach and power of this book.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist , by Mohsin Hamid (2007)
Borrowing from Camus’s “The Fall,” Hamid structures this novel in the form of a single dramatic monologue. Changez, a Pakistani immigrant, has a charmed life: He graduated from Princeton, he has a job at a top valuation firm in New York, and he recently started dating a beautiful woman. But this life is abruptly upended by the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and Changez finds his perceptions and allegiances shifting, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Born Palestinian, Born Black , by Suheir Hammad (1996)
Few poets working today can articulate as well as Hammad what it means to be a refugee, forever in one place but not of it. This collection of poems, her first, is powerful, honest and wise. (Bonus: Watch Hammad perform “Exotic ” on Def Poetry Jam.)
A Map of Home , by Randa Jarrar (2008)
Nidali, a smart, rebellious girl from Boston, narrates this touching coming-of-age novel by a talented young writer. Nidali moves with her family to Kuwait, then to Egypt and then again to Texas, each move causing her to lose friends and forcing her to reinvent herself to survive. Her family is funny and eccentric, but beneath the jokes lie the pain of domestic abuse and the struggle of overcoming it.
Bright Lines , by Tanwi Nandini Islam (2015)
“Bright Lines” chronicles the lives of three characters on the verge of a sexual awakening. There’s Ella, a girl orphaned by the war of independence in Bangladesh; Anwar, her uncle, who runs an apothecary in New York; and Charu, his only daughter, a feisty girl who’s headed to college in the fall. The joys of this book are many, and I loved in particular the complexity of its characters and the beauty of its landscape.
The Hakawati , by Rabih Alameddine (2008)
When Osamaal-Kharrat returns to Beirut to stand vigil at his father’s deathbed, he narrates the family’s history, going back several generations. This history is interwoven with fables, gossip, myths and other assorted tales. A sprawling, subversive and mesmerizing novel about families and the power of storytelling.
The Plot Against America , by Philip Roth (2004)
I know, I know. Philip Roth isn’t Muslim. But bear with me. In “The Plot Against America,” Roth asks us to imagine what would have happened if Charles Lindbergh, the celebrity aviator who had anti-Semitic sympathies, had won the Republican nomination in 1940 and become president. What if the United States had begun to implement discriminatory policies presented as measures to protect the homeland? Roth chronicles the effects of such events on a small Jewish family in Newark, people who always thought of themselves as Americans and discovered suddenly that they were perceived as a fifth column. A brilliant work of reimagined history, never more relevant than in the present moment.
Laila Lalami is the author, most recently, of “The Moor’s Account,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.