Tag Archives: Islam

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s History of Islam in America

I have been tardy in writing lately, although so much has been going on, certainly in the US, but also in Germany, the country of my birth. Here is a review of a book I finished reading last week.

For years, I have been looking for a book on the history of American Islam, especially after I had started teaching in South Carolina where up to a third of all slaves deported before 1800 came from an Islamicate environment. I became fascinated by the ways in which Islam changed as it arrived on the shores of the US.

I wanted a book that did not just tell the story of Islam but considered the specifically American setting. Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s History of Islam in America does precisely that. While also telling the often moving stories of individuals, the book considers the broader context of the American religious experience. Its sweep is impossibly broad—from the 16th century to 2006, and it cuts corners by necessity. I would for instance have loved to hear more about contemporary strategies of adaptation, or about the music scene, movies or theater plays (if there’s stand-up comedy, there must be theater) , or more about gay Muslims. I would have appreciated to hear the author’s outlook for the future but GhaneaBassiri is too careful for that. Immensely readable, this book satisfies the discerning reader and should become a classic.

Look here for an article by the author on “Is Religious Freedom a Casualty at Ground Zero?”over at  Religion Dispatches.

To quote briefly “Regardless of how one views the decision, the controversy surrounding the project is a reminder of the fact that while religious pluralism was a founding ideal of the United States implicit in the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom, Americans historically have edged toward it kicking and screaming.”

Indeed. But so far, they have come through, so let’s hope for the best.

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Fort Hood

Like many other Americans (I include myself here, having lived in this country for close to a decade), I am thinking today about the events in Fort Hood, the many who were murdered and injured, and the man–a physician nonetheless!–shouting Allahu Akbar while shooting his two handguns. It takes a lot of ammunition and time to hit 41 people. While it seems that this was a particularly troubled man, perhaps traumatized by the patients’ stories he was supposed to treat, the question remains how anyone could think that it could be possible to legitimize violence by evoking religion.

Of course there is nothing new in calling on God to legitimize violence. Conservative Christians do so when they murder physicians performing abortions, Baruch Goldstein was an observant Jew, and suicide bombers and religiously motivated terrorists are additional examples for this worldview.

At the same time, the religious community, especially their liberal branches, have a hard time addressing the possibility that religious tradition might have contributed to the perpetrator’s acts. It seems to me, however, as Brad Hirschfield noted in today’s blog at the Washington Post, that this is precisely what religious communities are called to do if they want to retain a shred of legitimacy and authenticity. Many of course deny that “true followers” could have acted so cruelly, and they either make excuses or denounce him or her as an outcast.

It is easy to reject and condemn the murders, as so many American Muslim communities have done already; it is much harder to deal with and counter ideas and ideologies that foster such acts. How do we–and I include all religions here–admit that our sacred texts that call for tolerance and social justice can raise such reprehensible ideas? How to deal with the undeniable fact that religious communities frequently foster intolerance and hatred instead of acceptance?

I believe that the first step is to admit that indeed, our religious traditions have strong undercurrents of intolerance (if you have any doubt, pick up a copy of any of Christopher Hitchens’ books). It is not legitimate to look at our texts as if they were rare orchids in a greenhouse, sheltered from the world. Religion is what its practitioners make of it and the picture is often not pretty. For religious leaders, sermons are an appropriate place to start the process. One example is Rabbi Ismar Schorsch’s thoughtful sermon after the Goldstein massacre in Hebron that attempts to do just that. A brief sermon can only be the beginning of an excruciating process, but I hope that many of today’s khutbas raise similar questions and that the Muslim community will come to a place of soulsearching beyond facile condemnation.

I also hope, of course, that yesterday’s events will not lead to a blanket condemnation of Muslims in the US, or of Muslim soldiers in the army. Perhaps we will even cease to ignore the realities of a brutal war but I have my doubts.

Shabbat Shalom.